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Language change and cultural continuity: communicating after 200 years in space

University of Michigan Health System

Will we be able to communicate with people returning from a 200-year space excursion?

BOSTON, Mass. --- Will space travelers speak a language we can understand when they return from a 200-year journey? That's the question posed by Sarah Thomason, a professor of linguistics at the University of Michigan, in her presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting here today.

"But the most basic question," Thomason says, "is what language (s) should the travelers speak when starting on the voyage? For obvious reasons it should be the same language. If they can't communicate with each other to begin with, the language learning or creating process will take time and will distract them from the necessities of constructing a new society."

An artificial or deliberately designed language like Esperanto has too shallow a pool of speakers, Thomason says. Such a language would not permit enough flexibility in choosing the space travelers.

English is the obvious and best choice for the space vehicle's language, according to Thomason. Her choice is based on practicality. Since English is the world's major international language, volunteers who speak English could provide the genetic diversity needed in the space vehicle's population. "It wouldn't be hard to find genetically diverse English speakers in such countries as Ghana and India, in addition to the U.S. (European) Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants from different parts of the world," Thomason says.

Even if all the space travelers speak English, will there be changes to that language during and after the 200-year venture. Thomason doesn't think changes, if any, will be major. "Modern English speakers are able to read Shakespeare, who wrote about 400 years ago," Thomason says. "But we might have vocabulary changes, because the travelers' environment will be so different from any Earthly setting." New words will inevitably spring up and many old words will fall out of use.

New words most likely would be coined and some familiar words will fall by the wayside. "Basic vocabulary like mother, father, run, walk and sit will persist," Thomason says, "But other words such as airplane, skyscraper, car and train would not be useful to the space travelers."

The caveat to all of this, Thomason says, is that the travelers may bond together as a unique community and may want to distinguish themselves linguistically from the people they left behind. This is not an unusual happening, she says. The reasons are not linguistic, but social. And with the English-speaking travelers coming from various parts of the world with a variety of English dialects, the travelers will undoubtedly establish their own dialect.

"This single relatively homogeneous dialect," Thomason says, "will be noticeable with the first generation of children born on the space vehicle and will surely result in a dialect that differs from all of the parents' dialects, and from every other dialect of English spoken on Earth."

Because the world of the space vehicle will be so different from Earth, many activities will become useless. "You can't ski aboard a spacecraft, or go river-rafting, or hike in the mountains, or watch live football games on television," says Thomason. "You can't travel to new and different places inside the spacecraft or meet people other than the on-board population. And those are just the American-style activities."

Religion could play a major role in the behavior of the spacecraft population. "There is no way to prevent religious tensions from arising on board," Thomason says, "but since the community must remain small, sects may be unlikely to develop. Choosing all the travelers from a single religious persuasion might be wise, if it's feasible; but this goal would be secondary to the goal of (for instance) ensuring genetic diversity."

The question remains -- how much continuity is desirable or attainable. "This isn't an easy question to answer," says Thomason. "Even if all 200 people on board come from the very same cultural background."


Contact: Joanne Nesbit 734-647-4418 or or Sally Pobojewski, AAAS Press Room

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